Memoir

Drawing From Life

The last thing I ever imagined for myself was the kind of job where I dressed in a tie and khaki trousers and drove to a soulless office park day after day to grind out meaningless work–spreadsheets, flowcharts, memos that no one ever read. My life up to that point didn’t hint at that fate: art school, film business, back to college for a writing education. None of that mattered, though, when in my early thirties I found myself with a baby and a responsibility to support said baby.

I always believed that I was born to make art, not status reports, but that was irrelevant now. The kid needed food, diapers, shelter, insurance, Spider-Man toys. He needed stability. He deserved a square dad, not a flake who imagined himself an artist. Square dads with sidelined dreams were the norm when I was a kid: the neighbor dad who passed up a contract with the White Sox; my buddy’s father, the concert pianist who was grinding it out as a punch card era computer programmer; my own father’s unfulfilled dream of piloting fighter jets. They all set their ambitions aside to take care of their kids. That was just the way things were.

Becoming a father meant putting away childish things, so every day I put on a tie and a pair of khaki pants and I drove to a climate controlled glass box and sat in a gray cubicle, the only splashes of color on its cloth walls the photos of my son. It was the right thing to do, but every day was an argument with myself. There was the man I needed to be and the person that I always believed I was, and the two did not like each other.

But dreams don’t die easily.

I don’t remember how I found the studio. It certainly wasn’t easy to spot: an ivy covered Quonset hut tucked behind an art gallery on a mostly residential block in a quiet part of Midtown. Every Wednesday night and Saturday morning the doors were open to anyone with seven bucks and a sketchpad. The collected money went to the night’s model, though I’m sure some of it probably went to the figure studio’s organizer, John Ferris.

Ferris was either mid-fifties and in bad shape or mid-sixties and average: soft, a little slouched in the shoulders with a full head of white hair and a matching white mustache. He resembled a Seymour Cassel character without any Seymour Cassel character, not unlike many of the guys in the climate-controlled glass box who sat in gray cubicles awaiting death or retirement, whichever came first. His wardrobe consisted primarily of Hawaiian shirts and his conversation consisted entirely of that which reflected glory onto John Ferris: who he knew, how involved he was in the local arts scene, what he was working on.

He gladly took my money on that first night, but that was the only use that Ferris had for me. Seven dollars was all that I could do for him; after all, I was a nobody. There were a few somebodies in the room, though: Frank, the community college teacher whose work hung in the local art museum; Glen, the California impressionist whose affordable shows always sold out; Yan, the great Wayne Thiebaud’s protege. Ferris lavished attention on the somebodies.

I didn’t care about the room’s politics, I just wanted to draw. I just wanted to feel The Hum again, that state of mind where time and language fall away and everything is beautiful. The neurological explanation isn’t terribly poetic–drawing accesses the right hemisphere of the brain, and the right side doesn’t deal with language–but that’s no matter. Tapping into The Hum is borderline narcotic. Our model stepped onto the small stage, no more than a riser really, in the center of the Quonset hut and dropped her robe. I put on my headphones, grabbed a stick of charcoal, and hoped to levitate out of my square dad reality and back into the magical space of The Hum.

Years earlier, figure drawing was where I felt most successful during art school. I was a reluctant illustration major, one who wanted to follow a fine arts path like painting but who allowed himself to be talked out of that by adults who knew better: Where are you going to get a job as a painter? Who is going to pay you to do that? If you insist on going to art school rather than a real school, at least pick a major that amounts to something. Some of those guys in advertising make good money, you know.

Not only was I a reluctant illustration major, but I wasn’t a very good one. I tried hard, but my instructors’ critiques almost always amounted to “I see what you were trying to do, but you really need to put more effort into it.” Accepting their conclusions that I half-assed my assignments was easier on my ego than admitting that I’d done the best that I could do but just couldn’t rise to professional standards.

But in figure drawing classes I shined. The professor, who in retrospect was Stephen Colbert’s doppelganger (he was even named Steven), referred to another student and me as “my superstars.” Maybe he just liked us or was being sarcastic, or perhaps he was an empath who realized how little self-confidence the struggling illustration major had. Regardless, I loved hearing those words and I chose to believe them. The Hum came easily in his classroom, and so did the results. Early in my first semester, I showed one of my figure studies to a friend. “Do your teachers recognize how talented you are?” he asked. “I’m serious. This needs to be nurtured.” That was almost as satisfying as being called “my superstar.”

Once I was on an uneven path to becoming an artist, but those days were long gone. Now I was a dad in khakis, clinging to a hunk of charcoal as if it were the last buoyant piece of flotsam from that shipwrecked identity. That first night in the Quonset hut didn’t amount to much, but at least I was doing something that mattered to me. At least I was on a path back to where I belonged.

Months passed at the studio. My drawing slowly improved, and I became friendly with many of the artists and models. Even a few of the somebodies grew a little chatty, but not Ferris. Our interactions never amounted to more than me handing over my seven dollar cover charge.

Yan, the Thiebaud protege, decided to teach a class for the Quonset hut crowd over the next eight Saturdays. He was a good teacher, not effervescent like Steven but not as passively negative as my former illustration teachers. Yan’s criticisms were practical and constructive, the comments of a working artist rather than a teacher. Over the course of several Saturdays, I felt like I was getting my chops back thanks to him.

On one of those Saturdays we walked to lunch together. “I feel a responsibility to all of my students,” he said. “But I especially feel a responsibility to you.”

My head swelled. I was the superstar again. “Why is that?” I asked.

“Because you have a child. You need to make money,” Yan said. Practical and constructive. I was not a superstar, I was a dad, but at least Yan thought that I could make money. That was something to cling to. Maybe I could live an artist’s life and be a responsible father, after all.

Yan’s attention seemed to nudge me slightly away from the corrugated tin periphery of the Quonset hut. I wasn’t a somebody, not by any stretch, but I was no longer a stranger. The place began to feel comfortable, and as a result I hated my square job a little less. Even Ferris seemed to warm up a little. He caught me during a break one Saturday and said, “Hey, I run a sculpture session on Tuesdays at noon. Why don’t you come by?”

I was no sculptor, but an invitation from Ferris wasn’t something that I was going to pass up. “I’ll be there,” I said. “What do I need to bring?”

“Just bring yourself,” Ferris said.

Tuesday morning arrived. Square job nonsense kept me in the gray cubicle longer than anticipated, and then traffic slowed my commute to the studio. I entered the Quonset hut ten minutes late. There stood Ferris, pot-bellied in his Hawaiian shirt. Several others sat facing the empty stage in the center of the room, shapeless mounds of clay resting before him. “Here he is!” Ferris said with the same sort of enthusiasm that Steven used to say “my superstar!” I couldn’t believe that they’d held up the session just for me.

“Look at that bald head!” Ferris said. “Won’t that be easy to sculpt? No hair in the way.”

The sculptors stared at me, willing me toward the center of the room with their irritated expressions. Unsure what else to do, I slowly climbed onto the little wooden podium and sat on the chair placed there for me. For the next 45 minutes, strangers scrutinized my humiliated head: the weak chin, the oversized nose, the shiny bald pate, the red ears growing larger by the minute. When time was up, they packed up their gear and left without a word. Ferris approached me with a handful of cash. “Keep it,” I said, and I hurried back to my soul crushing job to finish out the day.

I showed up at the studio the following Wednesday night, ready to draw. The artists made small talk while they waited for the model to arrive. I couldn’t stand their fake laughter and boring chatter. Why were they even here? What was this, some kind of social club for gutless old phonies with nothing better to do with their time? I put on my headphones, cranked the volume, and doodled on a sheet of newsprint. Come on, Hum, where are you? The model arrived. She mounted the stage, and I did a series of quick, scribbly gestural drawings, just like Steven taught me back when I was a superstar. Gesture drawings were the price of admission to the right hemisphere, the key to the door, the spirit guide who made the words and the responsibilities and the distractions fade away and filled the empty space with warmth, beauty, and infinity. Come on, Hum. Please.

But there was no Hum, only the stench of cold death. The odor was so strong that it pulled my attention away from the paper in front of me. I turned to my left, and the woman at the easel adjacent to mine was chewing on a greasy piece of cold fried chicken, its mate sweating in a plastic sandwich bag on the ledge of her easel. I watched her yellowed teeth tear flesh from bone, the loose breading clinging to her liver brown lipstick. I looked around the room. They were all phonies, gross caricatures, assholes in Hawaiian shirts, manipulators. Even Yan was a liar. He just wanted me to keep coming to his stupid class.

“Fuck these people,” I said, or maybe I just thought it. My insides were on the outside now, thought and speech, dreams and vocations, who I thought I was and who I needed to be. I closed my sketchpad and walked out the door.

That night marked my last visit to a figure drawing studio. I was no artist, I was a father. I belonged in a climate controlled glass box now, not an ivy covered Quonset hut.

Categories: Memoir

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